Pursuing Belize’s Feathered Treasure Cameron Boyd, center, of the Black Rock Lodge and the guides Lenney Gentle, left, and Giovanni Fernandez birding in western Belize.
By STEPHEN REGENOLD
A hand-held radio buzzed and snapped with static. The park ranger held up the antenna, a wand searching for a response. There was dead air and silence, and then, “Roger, roger,” crackled through the speaker.
We were two hours into a wilderness boat tour in the Chiquibul Forest Reserve of western Belize. It was midmorning, and our canoes were floating on a wide stretch of the Macal River.
“Quick, hand me the binocs,” said Lenney Gentle, our guide for the day. He scanned the forest, binoculars panning, in search of a bird.
It was my third day in the Cayo District, a region where mountains ascend thousands of feet into the tropical air. The canoe trip, a daylong expedition to find the scarlet macaw, a rare parrot in the area, would be the high point of my week of ornithological adventures.
More than 500 species of birds live or migrate through Belize, where frigatebirds share coastal waters with pelicans and red-footed boobies. Inland, flamboyant feathered residents like royal flycatchers, olive-throated parakeets, keel-billed toucans — and dozens and dozens more — can be spotted on a jungle hike.
On my trip last January, I was based out of Black Rock Lodge, an eco-resort on the Macal, and mixed bird watching with area excursions on land and water. As a neophyte birder, I followed guides from the resort — native Belizeans who grew up in the jungle — along river trails, learning to identify fleeting shapes and dots of color hopping on branches and leaves.
“Hear that whistle?” asked Carlos Quiterio, one of the resort’s guides, on a day hike, passing the binoculars. “Now look here.” Through the lenses I saw a golden-hooded tanager flickering from branch to branch.
Mr. Quiterio, 45, one of four guides at the resort, could identify hundreds of birds that dwell near the lodge, migrants and residents alike. On a morning walk with him, I saw over 30 species, which he recorded in a notebook. Black Rock keeps track of which species have been spotted within five miles of the lodge; there are almost 250 species recorded to date.
Breakfast featured ad hoc bird watching along with toast and eggs on an open-air deck. Birds like a great black hawk and a bat falcon roosted in trees nearby, flying into view for an audience of lodge guests drinking coffee. King vultures hung on thermals a thousand feet in the sky.
On another trek, Mr. Quiterio led an evening hike to spot nocturnal life. The eyes of spiders glowed in the grass as our flashlight beams bobbed along. He shined his light onto a riverside rock wall. “See here,” he whispered, pointing with his knife, “swallows in their nest.”
Built on a hillside in a steep valley south of San Ignacio, the biggest town in the western Cayo, Black Rock has 13 cabins on a bend of the Macal River. It is off-the-grid — water and sun power the resort — and is one of many eco-tourism resorts in Belize where adventure sports like hiking, caving and river rafting are blended with nature walks, bird-watching and day trips to ruins.
Hiking trails stream from the compound, ideal for treks — guided or not — to a nearby cave, a waterfall and a mountaintop lookout, where birds swoop into a valley of green. Serious birders make up about 15 percent of the resort’s guests, according to Cameron Boyd, the lodge’s owner. “But another big percentage gets very interested during their visits,” he said.
My route to Belize began with Mr. Boyd, whom I’d met while kayaking in Mexico two years ago. His tales of Mayan ruins, rain forests, mountains and — most of all — a parrot with a red body and a white face lured me south.
After two days at the lodge, a spotting scope and telephoto lens in hand, it was time to head off the property in an attempt to find the scarlet macaw.
At 6 a.m., my group met in a sleepy rendezvous on a side street in San Ignacio, where we procured a canoe. Mr. Gentle, a guide and field ecologist who leads scientific research projects in the area, hoisted the boat onto a trailer, cinching it on with rope before we rumbled away. There were five of us squeezed into the truck, bumping uphill into a waking jungle.
John Lamb, 73, sat in back, swaying as the truck bounced and swerved, his eyes half closed. Mr. Lamb, our hired boat driver for the day, worked in the Chiquibul forest long ago — where we were headed — collecting tree sap for a chewing gum company. “I was 15 years old and working all day in the forest,” he said.
In theory, Mr. Lamb, who married and then raised nine children in San Ignacio, can see the same parrots today that he saw while working in the forest years ago; the scarlet macaw, an intelligent bird that mates for life, has a maximum life expectancy of 75 years.
In Belize, where roughly only 200 scarlet macaws make their home, the bird is a rare sight. Ten years ago, the bird was at the center of an environmental dispute waged between the Belize government and an energy company it was working with to build a dam on the Macal River and environmentalists who wanted to protect the birds’ habitat. The environmentalists lost, and the valley was flooded four years ago after the hydropower station was built.
“It was equivalent to flooding and destroying a national park,” said Bruce Barcott, the author of “The Last Flight of the Scarlet Macaw,” a 2008 book on events leading to the construction of the dam.
BECAUSE the Macal valley is a major nesting ground for the bird, it was feared that the loss of the habitat would be devastating for the species. The birds reacted by moving to a higher elevation, which is where we headed on the canoe trip. Have the birds suffered from the transition? There is debate over how the dam will affect the birds’ long-term ability to nest and breed.
Our trip was a new tour organized by the resort in conjunction with the Friends for Conservation and Development, a nonprofit conservation and research organization based in Belize.
On the way to the reservoir, we picked up Jaime Requena, 36, a park ranger in combat boots and cargo pants, who was hired to assist in guiding us up the river. We loaded the canoes, strapped on life vests, threw in a cooler and launched the boats. Mr. Lamb, our boat driver, steered east toward hazy mountains cutting a blue sky.
Our canoe caravan — two crafts tethered, a single motor moving our group upstream — chugged in a labored locomotion, parting the dark water. After an hour, Mr. Gentle pointed toward a tributary valley and the expedition turned south.
Since there are so few scarlet macaws in Belize, the chances of seeing one were slight. But luck was with us that day.
An hour after launching the boats, two red streaks bulleted past. “Macaw!” Mr. Requena shouted. Cameras swiveled in the canoes and shutters fired.
The birds traced away in seconds, gliding around a giant hill. But more parrots were ahead, Mr. Gentle said.
Another 40 minutes onward and our crew cut the motor. Mr. Lamb reached with a paddle, digging to spin the crafts. A little red family hopped on branches 500 feet uphill. We drifted toward the bank. The macaws — two preening adults and a fuzzy youngster — sat ignoring our approach. At 200 feet, the birds started to squawk. Their throaty, reptilian screeches echoed into the jungle.
“Two more!” someone shouted, as my eyes leapt to an adjacent tree.
We untied the canoes and paddled farther upstream. I zoomed in for a photo, my lens framing a parrot cocking its head atop a bromeliad clump.
Farther out, more birds cried. They flitted above the boat, a pair gliding close with wings intermittently touching as they flew.
A red head poked from a hole in a tree. “They’re snooping for nest sites,” Mr. Gentle said.
We counted three pairs, the yearling and three independent birds; 10 scarlet macaws in a single morning — amazing.
A hundred pictures more, and my camera’s card was getting full. A macaw clung on a tree climbing sideways, practically posing for a shot.
We motored off a half hour later, our visit feeling complete. Tied together again, our canoes headed back north, the reservoir spilling flat across the valley. Beneath our boats was a flooded lost world, but the birds hopped on branches in the sun, making the best of the new world above.
IF YOU GO
Access to interior Belize and the Cayo District begins for most travelers at Goldson International Airport, where the Western Highway runs 78 miles from the swampy flats near Belize City toward Mayan ruins, rivers, jungle and mountains that tower inland past the Guatemalan border. Lodges in and around San Ignacio, the western Cayo’s main town, provide shuttles from the airport. Some travelers rent cars for the two-hour trip. American dollars are widely accepted.
There are dozens of lodging options, including hotels and lodges in San Ignacio like Martha’s Guest House (501-804-3647; www.marthasbelize.com; rooms start at $45) and Midas Tropical Resort (501-824-3179; www.midasbelize.com; cottages start at $54 or $59 depending on the season).
Resorts in the rain forest like the Lodge at Chaa Creek (501-824-2037; www.chaacreek.com
), Table Rock (501-670-4910; www.tablerockbelize.com
) and Black Rock Lodge (501-820-4049; www.blackrocklodge.com
) offer a pristine setting on the Macal River. Rates range from $50 a night for a cabin with a shared bathroom to more than $200 a night for a private suite.
Bird-watching day trips — by foot or canoe — can be arranged through outfitters in San Ignacio, including Pacz Tours (501-824-2477; www.pacztours.net
) and Mayawalk Tours (501-824-3070; www.mayawalk.com
). The eco-lodges, also including Crystal Paradise Resort (501-824-2772; www.crystalparadise.com
) and others, employ local guides.
Black Rock Lodge’s scarlet macaw tour is an all-day trip on the remote reservoir of the Macal River in the Chiquibul Forest Reserve. It is led by birding guides from the lodge and naturalists from the Friends for Conservation and Development. The tour departs at 6 a.m. each Thursday, with pickups in San Ignacio and area lodges. With a minimum of four passengers, the cost is $110 a person; lunch is included. Scarlet macaws are rare in Belize. Click here for interactive feature "A Paradise of Birds in Belize"
. VERY COOL!